Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. Will the Pirate Save The Music Industry?

    December 9

    Since becoming illegal, internet piracy has been a hot topic. Sales figures from the record industry show that fewer people are buying CDs. The companies claim that a large part of their revenue is lost to illegal downloads. The area is hard to research since much of the activity is done in secret.

    The explanations to why people download music illegally range from the demoralisation of today’s youngsters (a classic!) to the price of CDs being too high. The American Assembly, a part of Columbia University, have actually asked people. They confirmed a few expected things: piracy is very common, especially among 18–29 year-olds. This is also the age group with very large digital music collections. In addition to the expected, the study found that because of a genuine interest in music the biggest pirates are also the biggest music consumers. The anti-piracy organisation in the US has dismissed the results as misleading.

    It confirms that the record companies would rather sell a few CDs to as many as possible than a lot of music to few with a genuine interest. Traditionally, when you run a business you treat your regulars (or the costumers sharing a passion for what you do) the best and hope for repeat business.

    No wonder record companies are going down.

  2. The Predictable Randomness Of Humans

    mixel_Page_141

    I have a fear of flying. Or more specifically, I have a fear of crashing.

    Plane crashes are very rare. In fact, plane crashed are studied in minute detail and always seem to be caused by many small coinciding malfunctions. For some reason though, my brain tricks me into thinking that for every safe flight I experience, I get closer to that very rare disastrous one. This is known as ‘The Gambler’s Fallacy’.

    Many times gamblers will think that the longer a lucky streak goes on for, the more likely it is to end at the next turn. This is because humans are unable to generate random sequences. If you want random, you’re better off using a computer.

    Our perception of randomness does not match actual statistics. Humans tend to think that sequences with many alterations are random. It makes us prone to overestimate when sequences or events are truly random and it also makes us label unlikely events as random.

    In the gambling scenario, this means that only when the gambler thinks that the streak is random (and they are not in control of the events) will they start to worry about it ending. If they are under the illusion that they can control the game, they won’t worry as much. Both scenarios are in fact random and the probability of the streak lasting is the same in every turn.

    The feeling that I am ticking off safe flights until I have the inevitable experience of a crash is just in my head. Every time I get on a flight I am as unlikely to crash, regardless of what happened the last time I flew.

    Like in so many other situations, my fear is just a limitation of my human brain.

  3. Peering Into the Future of Today

    mixel_Page_092

    At the end of the past millennia big business was thriving.

    It was so powerful that it played a natural role in the romantic comedy “You’ve got mail”. Despite being based on a book written in the 1950s, the story adapts perfectly to 1998:

    Meg Ryan plays an owner of a quaint little family bookshop under threat from a big chain that opens up across the street. The big bookstore chain is run by Tom Hanks, who through a varying degree of dirty tricks tries to obliterate all other traders in the area. Oh, and unbeknown to them they are nurturing a blooming romance with each other via e-mail (although I am not quite sure how this fits into the 1950s story). Anyway, Meg cannot fight the natural course of the big business taking over. It is an unstoppable force.

    More than a decade later, when the memory of this average comedy had long faded, I found myself trying help a struggling bookstore. The big bookstore chain Borders, a 40-year-old American company started by two brothers, was going bankrupt. The tables had turned, the internet provided a more attractive way to buy books, and this time Tom Hanks was going down.

    In the Forbes blog post “Your Life In 2020” John Maeda, graphic designer and computer scientist, foresees an increase in humanity in our future. The internet is well integrated into our lives and is here to stay. He predicts, using smart phone apps as an example, a future shift from ‘accepting corporate anonymity’ to appreciating hand crafted and well-made products. Although there is a lot of substance in the post, I have to disagree with one thing:

    This is not life in 2020.

    It is life today.

  4. Joyeux Nobel!

    I was once interviewed by a Professor for a PhD position in London. I was living and working in Oxford at the time and he had some ties in Cambridge. We went on to speak a bit about the classic rivalry between the Cambridge and Oxford Universities. He mentioned the high number of Nobel Prizes Cambridge alumni have received (more than any other institution in the world) and asked me how Stockholm University ranked. With a smirk I replied:

    -“How does Stockholm University rank? Well, either you receive the Nobel Prize…or you give it.”

    I did not get that PhD position.

    I am happy that I claimed to have a somewhat close connection to the Nobel Prize. In reality the closest I got was having one of the people that choose the chemistry prize as a lecturer. I even managed to miss the annual lectures held at the university by the Nobel Laureates as part of their Stockholm visit for the ceremony.

    I won’t be in Stockholm this year either, but through the magic of technology at least I can catch the series of lectures online. Check back in the next two days to catch some of the action. Live.

  5. The Science of Segmented Sleep

    mixel_Page_099

    I am notoriously bad at falling asleep at night. And I have spent many afternoons trying to overcome the fact that I cannot keep my eyes open. I have always written it off as my own fault. “I let gluttony get the best of me and had a huge lunch”, or “I did not sleep enough last night”. But maybe it was never my fault at all.

    The historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech, spent 16 years studying sleeping patterns by reading old court records, medical literature, diaries and literature. In 2005 he published, ‘At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past’, a book about his findings.

    As expected sleep was not elaborated on and was referred to as common knowledge, but quite unexpectedly the sleeping pattern of yesteryear was very different from modern day sleeping. Classics, as ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes from 1615 and ‘Barnaby Rudge’ by Charles Dickens from 1840, describe sleeping in two shifts. They refer to a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep’. First sleep seems to start around two hours after dusk, followed by one or two hours awake before leading into a second sleep.

    In the late 17th century the two sleeping shifts become less frequent in literature and in the 1920s they were history. According to Ekirch, fading of segmented sleep from the old records coincides with the industrial revolution and maybe more specifically, the first candle lit streets. The new social order allowed the average citizen to roam the streets at night, something that previously only prostitutes, criminals and drunks had done. As people started using the night for new exciting activities the importance of maintaining sleep patterns dwindled. And even though society might have made us forget, Ekirch argues that segmented sleep at night and the occasional nap in the daytime is the natural way of sleeping.

    I think that most of us would sign up for trying out life as Ekirch describes it. I definitely would. At least I don’t have to take the blame for the impulses of sleeping that my body puts me through. Next time I try to disguise a yawn during work hours I will tell myself: “It’s society’s fault”.

  6. Do You Have The Genes To Survive?

    I once had a friend read my palm.

    At first she refused. She had previously upset another friend when she had reviled the secrets hidden in the folds of her hands. After I promised to not take any of her premonitions to heart, she was persuaded. I was told that I would have a really long life. A long life of disasters. A long horrible life awaited. My lifeline was apparently cut many times.

    Your genes control you (at least Richard Dawkins is pretty sure of this). Your behaviour is determined by the genes you were born with. According to Dawkins, natural selection will always favour genes with the ability to adapt the individual to its surrounding environment.

    I don’t care much about what my friend saw in my palm. And even if it would be true, there is a chance that I have nature on my side. I might be one of the lucky humans with good genes that can adapt to my surroundings.

    I will be fine.

  7. We Do Make ‘Em Like They Used To

    mixel_Page_124

    A blob of rubber falls out of a machine onto a conveyor belt. Despite only looking at old archive footage I can sense the rubber smell and how the exhausts caught on camera fill my lungs. I am watching a vinyl single being made.

    I then go on to watch 60 minutes of old (mostly) men talk about how the peak of existence was to have your world revolve around vinyl singles. The young teenagers of the late 1950s would search shops for hours for that one single only to find that no one stocked it. They would end up spending their weekly allowance on something else that the shop owner insisted they’d buy. The single was a physical thing that you had to earn it. When music was distributed on vinyl singles, the youngsters would meet up, bring their records and play them for each other. You would share music! All that is lost with the digital music of today. Kids don’t appreciate music anymore since they can’t see or touch it.

    For some reason someone spent money making a TV show that, through ‘the single’, romanticises being a teenager in the 1950s. Sharing your nostalgia is fine, maybe even important in some cases, but judging others because they will be born at a later time is wrong. It is as wrong as describing an entire generation by a few characteristics (they are always bad), without holding the previous generations that created their society accountable.

    Granted, there has been a lot of change over the past century. Our lives have developed in a digital direction. What these people don’t seem to know is that teenagers never stopped being teenagers. Yes, they might have started storing certain things they buy in a computer rather in a physical box and they might communicate over the internet. But they do still socialise and share music. And I am guessing that future generations will too.

    I think it is important for different generations to see their similarities and to not judge someone because they live differently to you.

  8. Are We All Lucky Mistakes?

    If you have ever considered a wider purpose for your existence, wonder no more. The John Templeton Foundation has taken it upon itself to ask big questions like that to leading American scholars and scientists.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and ‘popularizer’ of science has had his answer animated. His answer to the big question is: Not sure

    He figures that the more we learn about the universe, the more random it seems and in a human life, good events are as likely to happen as really bad destructive ones. It is also very unlikely that the purpose of the universe is to create life on Earth since 99.9% of all organisms that have lived here have been wiped out by harsh living conditions. He goes on to dismiss that the purpose might be to create human life. In his own words “universe has been embarrassingly inefficient about it”, since we have existed for only 0.00001% of the Earth’s lifetime.